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Update on an old warning: Beware the coming shortages

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Dennis Meadows warned 32 years ago that the world would run short of resources within a century, putting the planet at risk of expanding hunger as well as economic and social disaster.

Today, that danger is more imminent, says Mr. Meadows, one of the authors of "The Limits to Growth," a book published in 1972 and now just updated.

Within 30 years, world living standards could start falling, Meadows predicts. "We are living on borrowed time." The rising expense of protecting the rising population from starvation, pollution, soil erosion, and shortages of nonrenewable resources will cut into the capital available for boosting industrial output, Meadows says.

His book, coauthored with Donella Meadows, his late wife, and Jorgen Randers, was a publishing sensation, selling 30 million copies in 30 languages. But the book was widely scorned, especially after the food and oil shortages of the mid-1970s turned into surpluses.

The critics, though, were often ignoring the 100-year timetable the authors used.

"The Club of Rome [which commissioned the book] got the whole picture right," maintains Matthew Simmons, a prominent Texas oil consultant.

In their update, the authors note, humanity has "squandered the opportunity" to correct its current course over the last 30 years.

The entire world, rich and poor, faces political and economic turmoil likely to arise from a grim situation.

Signs of global trouble are brewing:

• The gap between rich and poor nations is 10 times what it was 30 years ago. During the 1990-2001 period, 54 countries already experienced declines in per capita gross domestic product. This gap could help keep terrorism going, warns Meadows.

• Demand from prospering China has caused shortages of oil and metals. If 9 billion people on earth were to consume materials at the American rate, world steel production would need to rise fivefold, copper eightfold, and aluminum ninefold. It's not possible or necessary, the authors hold.

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